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Posts Tagged ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’

I first started writing about films on the internet back in 2001, and at the end of that first year announced the list of films I was particularly looking forward to – one of them was Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Well, it has taken somewhat longer than anticipated, but I am finally in a position to write about this movie. I must express my gratitude to Terry Gilliam for finally finishing it and getting it into cinemas, even with the disgracefully limited UK release it has eventually received – I could have ended up looking quite silly otherwise.

The travails of Gilliam’s Don Quixote have become legendary, helped by the release of Lost in La Mancha in 2002 – intended as a making-of film to go on the DVD, it ended up as the chronicle of a collapsing film shoot, as an already-chaotic production was sent into a terminal spin by scheduling problems, terrible weather, injured stars, and much more. It would have been enough to win The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a spot in the book The Greatest Movies Never Made – but, as I have previously noted, ‘never’ is a bold choice of words, and just as a few of these projects have finally crept out into the world, so Gilliam has finally finished this movie.

You can’t accuse The Man Who Killed Don Quixote of a lack of self-awareness, as the opening credits ruefully acknowledge the long and troubled history of the production (‘and now, after 25 years in the making, and unmaking’). This kind of playfulness continues on into the movie itself, where we encounter Toby (Adam Driver), a pretentious director surrounded by obsequious hangers-on, engaged in what looks like a troubled and chaotic production of a film of Don Quixote on location in Spain. Things are not going well, with abrasive crew-members, endless hold-ups, and a distinct lack of inspiration. The situation is not helped when Toby’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves his trophy wife (Olga Kurylenko) in his care: she turns out to be much taken with Toby, and the director finds his amorous instincts over-riding his better judgement.

It all takes an odd turn, however, when a chance encounter with a gypsy selling various wares reunites Toby with a copy of the student film that made his name, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. He realises he made the movie in the same area, a decade or so earlier, using local people in the key roles – an old shoemaker, Javier (Jonathan Pryce) as Quixote, and a bar-owner’s teenage daughter, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), as Dulcinea. But a brief visit to the locations of the movie reveal that it has had a less positive effect on the other participants: Angelica became fixated on becoming a famous film star, which led to her being sucked into a netherworld of crime and degradation, while Javier became convinced he really was Don Quixote and abandoned his old life entirely.

Various misunderstandings from Toby’s chaotic life lead to him being arrested by the police, but he is less than entirely delighted when the old man appears on horseback and ‘rescues’ him. The self-styled Quixote addresses Toby as Sancho Panza and declares that great deeds and adventures await the pair of them…

Don Quixote defeated Orson Welles long before Terry Gilliam ever attempted to film it, and entire films have been made recounting the tortuous progress of Gilliam’s version to the screen: two of the director’s choices to play Quixote died while the film was trapped in development hell, while other cast members have shifted roles in the meantime (Jonathan Pryce was originally supposed to be playing an entirely different part). Perhaps most significantly of all, the script of the movie has been significantly rewritten since Lost in La Mancha came out: I was expecting there to be an explicitly fantastical, time-travel element to this movie, but it has been removed.

In its place is something more subtle and unexpected, and rather more in keeping with Cervantes: the novel was published in two parts, many years apart, and the second volume opens with Quixote and Sancho rather nonplussed by the fame they have acquired as notable literary figures (not to mention outraged by an unauthorised sequel penned by other hands). The Man Who Killed Don Quixote manages a degree of the same kind of witty self-referentiality – nearly all the characters in it are aware of the book, and intent upon acting various bits of it out for different reasons. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, it is also a remarkably faithful adaptation of a novel which doesn’t easily lend itself to other media.

You could argue this is a double-edged sword, for Don Quixote is a sprawling, episodic, picaresque, apparently undisciplined book, and Gilliam’s film is arguably many of these things too. The first act in particular feels slow and rambling, the story unsure of which way to go. But once Toby and Quixote set off on their peculiar exploits, it lifts enormously, and it slowly becomes clear that in addition to being an adaptation of Cervantes, this is also an engaging and affecting comedy-drama about Toby’s own personal redemption and discovery of his own inner knight-errant.

Adam Driver wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice for this particular role, but he carries it off well: this is a proper leading role, which he does full justice too. While I would deeply love the chance to peep into the parallel quantum realms where this film was made five or ten years ago and John Hurt or Michael Palin played Quixote, I honestly can’t imagine either of them doing a better job in the role than Jonathan Pryce does here – Pryce is enjoying one of those periods of late bloom that actors sometimes have, and this is one of his best performances.

Of course, Pryce and Gilliam have worked together a number of times in the past, and I first became aware of the actor following his lead performance in Brazil. His presence here isn’t the only thing that recalls some of the classic Gilliam movies of the past: there is the way in which the present day and the medieval collide with each other (mostly figuratively, here), and also the film’s focus on the conflict between imagination and dreams on the one hand, and dreary old reality on the other. You’re never in doubt as to which side the director is on; you could probably argue that Terry Gilliam’s whole career has been building up to doing a film of Don Quixote.

I’m not sure this is quite as consistent or as impressive as some of Gilliam’s other feats of cinematic legerdemain, but neither is it far from the standard of his best films, and there are moments which are as accomplished as anything he’s done in the past. It feels like a minor miracle that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been finished at all; the fact it is as good as it is simply adds to the sense that it is something we should be grateful for. (It’s just a shame that – true to form – the film is still entangled in legal difficulties affecting its release and distribution, which is presumably why it has barely appeared in British cinemas.) A heart-warming achievement for Terry Gilliam, anyway, and a treat for those of us who’ve loved his films for years.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 19th 2002: 

Long-time, long-suffering readers may recall that when this column was younger and still had some novelty value, we occasionally peered back into the mists of time for a look at the great, and not so great, films of years gone by. Well, I decided to knock this section of the column on the head in the end as while a review of a film that came out a fortnight ago has some spurious claim to relevance, the same cannot be said for an in-depth critique of a thirty-year-old opus about a rubber dinosaur. However, where do art-house films, wending their slow and convoluted routes around the country over a period of many months fit into this equation? Well, they may not be brand-spanking new, but they’re new in my local cinema at least, which makes them fair game in my book. Which brings us to Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha.

Total masochists and members of the editorial team may recall last January’s review of 2001, wherein I listed the films which I was particularly looking forward to this year: Attack of the Clones, From Hell, Matrix Reloaded and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Attentive masochists will also have noticed that most of these films turned out to not be very good, or indeed finished yet. But I think I was truly alone in looking forward to the release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, as this film was not only not finished, it had in fact been pretty much abandoned less than a fortnight into production.

Lost in La Mancha is a documentary about what went wrong. Originally intended as a DVD extra it’s been released in an attempt to drum up interest in the film, and it’s a fascinating piece of work. That this is so is mainly because making the film was a long-cherished dream of its director, one Terence Vance Gilliam, and Gilliam is always good value no matter which side of the camera he’s on.

Quixote and Gilliam seem made for each other – Gilliam’s classic 80s movies all deal with the clash between dreams and reality, the same theme as Cervantes’ classic novel. And the same theme permeates this documentary, as Gilliam’s dream of making his masterpiece slowly falls apart in the face of real-world difficulties. To begin with, all seems well, as Gilliam arrives in Spain to oversee pre-production, and the glimpses of his vision we see are truly tantalising: rampaging giants, an army of life-size puppet soldiers, and more. Gilliam’s enthusiasm is infectious and all-consuming, the test footage of the giants (low-angle shots of very obese, very ugly Spaniards) hilarious. But everyone on the project says repeatedly, and worriedly, how ambitious it is and how little room for manoeuvre there is in the schedule. As shooting approaches several of the lead actors have yet to show up for costume fittings and screen tests (the impressive cast includes Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, Vanessa Paradis, Bill Paterson and Christopher Eccleston). The production’s one and only sound stage has the acoustics of an oil drum.

And as shooting begins in earnest, things go only from bad to worse: the main location turns out to be next door to an active NATO bombing range. The extras have had no rehearsal. On day two the main film unit is washed away in a thunderstorm, in a sequence both funny and heartbreaking. The key image of the film becomes Gilliam storming around the shoot in a variety of eccentric hats shouting ‘We’re f**ked!’. Things go from worse to disastrous as the actor playing Quixote himself, French veteran Jean Rochefort – who learned English specifically for this film – is diagnosed with a double-herniated disc which effectively stops him from participating. Concerned investors and completion guarantors begin to circle the production like vultures…

As a behind-the-scenes look at the film industry Lost in La Mancha is not especially innovative: only as a glimpse at a film that never was (or at least, hasn’t been yet) is it of real interest. But there are so many thematic parallels between the story of Quixote the character, and the story of Quixote the film, that it’s almost spooky. Gilliam emerges as a dogged, almost eternally cheerful character – his refusal to accept the worst is perhaps understandable given that every film he’s ever made has involved a battle of some kind of other (he did, after all, develop stress-related hysterical paralysis during post-production on Brazil). But on the other hand, if this wasn’t a Gilliam project it’s doubtful things would have gone quite so badly wrong – First AD Phil Patterson (who comes across as Sancho Panza to Gilliam’s Quixote) admits the total chaos reigning as shooting approaches would normally make him deeply nervous – but this is a Gilliam project, after all, and everyone knows this is how Gilliam operates…

If I had to make a criticism of Lost in La Mancha, it’d be that the documentary style is a little lacking in narrative structure – the story of the production fizzles out a bit at the end. Admittedly, the production itself fizzles out, but the documentary doesn’t stress the final dissolution strongly enough. The rest of the time this is a fascinating, amusing, tantalising piece of work. I would perhaps hesitate to recommend it to anyone who wasn’t a Terry Gilliam fan or a film industry geek, but for that audience at least it’s a virtual must-see.

And the story may yet have a happy ending: the film closes with Gilliam embarking on yet another attempt to make his movie, struggling to buy his script back off the insurers. Will he succeed or not? Will what looked to be a tremendous feat of imagination ever reach our screens? No-one knows, yet. And you thought Lord of the Rings ended on a cliff-hanger!

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